Saturday, 9 July 2016

Lost in space... Planet of the Vampires (1965)

There’s more to this than it first appears or rather doesn’t and, in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers this is a tale seeped in paranoia and cold-war angst. Or maybe it’s just aping the concerns of the many American sci-fi shockers that inspired this Italian effort. The star may be American – the aging but still dynamic, Barry Sullivan - but pretty much everyone else is Italian with American voices dubbed in post-production.

It only adds to the, by then slightly-dated, atmosphere… but the design and overall mise-en-scène places this as slightly-superior genre – Planet of the Vampires has style, from space-ships to the space-suits of the crew this is a visually-cohesive thrill from take-off to landing. It’s also not obsessed with the gory violence or detailed monstrosities often found in inter-stellar space in the mid-sixties.
This is a narrative focused on procedure and monstrous character and when the final twist hits you realise the monsters are closer to home than we might have thought.

The film’s atmospherics and scale – massive spaceships with endless interiors, has been seen as an influence on Alien and others that came later (although Ridley Scott  claimed not to have seen it at the time) and it does feel like a step up and outwards on the claustrophobia of most contemporary science fiction.

By focusing on style and atmospherics and refraining from revealing too much detail of the alien enemy, the film avoids the pitfalls of so much of its genre: you’re kept waiting and the “monsters” are very believable…

The Bridge
Barry Sullivan is Captain Mark Markary, an experienced, travel-weary, commander of a spaceship called Argos who is out exploring the outer reaches with sister ship, The Galliot. They are investigating a mysterious signal from a mist-enveloped planet – is it from intelligent life? Suddenly they lose contact with the second ship and both get drawn onto the mysterious planet almost crushed by a gravitational force they cannot resist. The effects are more stylistic than realistic – in the way that period sci-fi can only ever attempt to be – but there’s a consistency of style that works well.

Down onto this misty, volcanic world they go landing in a swoosh of steam and graveyard fog… Contact has been lost with The Galliot and Mark’s brother is on board.

Landing in the graveyard gloom
The planet's surface
Almost immediately they land strange starts to happen as some of the crew become deranged and attack for no reason: there is something on this world that is unsettling their psyches. And so it goes…

They find The Galliot with three dead crew all mysteriously marked as if they’d been attacked by wild animals and bury them under metal lids with strange posts as markers – a space funeral. The crew is spooked and it’s not long before those three metal coffins are opened by the supposedly-dead men – not so much planet of vampires as of zombies.

The crew attack the captain
The crew keep watch in the dark and begin to see multi-coloured flashes in the air: there’s something strange… and the narrative builds slowly maintaining an off-kilter suspense.

Another crew member is found dead – again covered in signs of a bloody fight – he is examined in the ship and the attacks Tiona (Evi Marandi) one of the female crew. She survives leaving Mark to go off with communications officer – and proto-Uhura – Sanya (Norma Bengell), to investigate another ship.

Norma Bengell and Evi Marandi
They find the skeletons of huge aliens and a ship that dwarfs even their own – as Mark and Sanya travel further into the leviathan, they find evidence of electromagnetic  life… the suspicion grows that whatever killed these aliens remains and is threatening them too.

Upon returning to their ship, two of The Galliot crew come staggering through the mist Captain Sallis (Massimo Righi) and Mark’s brother included… but they don’t look very well to me and it’s not long before they begin attacking the ship and crew.

The Captain and Sanya investigate
Alien bodies, long dead
Mark and Sanya establish that an alien intelligence is taking over the crew’s minds and bodies whenever they are unconscious or dead… they must find a way to stop these possessions and soon before the entire ship is taken over and the psychic vampires can escape to other worlds…

Dusty verdict: Planet of the Vampires may be dubbed from Italian into English but its message is quite clear: the enemy is within body-snatching in the same fashion as the classic fifties film.

It has a nervy energy all of its own though and that makes for absorbing, stylish viewing that has more than a few twist and turns along the way.

There’s a very impressive electronic score from Gino Marinuzzi, Jr which helps maintain the mood of unsettling mystery and suspense. Director Mario Bava makes the very most of his limited budget with some lovely set-pieces as the crew scramble over the lava flows of the erupting plant, run along sleek corridors and attack themselves from all angles.

Barry Sullivan and Norma Bengell
Planet of the Vampires is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon – it goes boldly were no Italians had gone before.

Planet of Vampires issues 1 and 2 art by Pat Broderick and the great Neal Adams!
PS There was a short-lived but well-drawn comic book version loosely based on the film from Atlas Comics in 1975 which I bought at the time: very little in common with the film but cool costumes and a relentless foe!

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